Allen Toussaint, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who passed away this morning, is best known for his monumental work as a songwriter and producer, so it’s easy for folks to lose sight of what a powerhouse he was as a performer. I enjoy his subtle vocal style and his bandleading but it’s his piano that knocks me out, incorporating the sounds of New Orleans giants Professor Longhair and James Booker along with elements of jazz and pop, with the result being a totally distinct style.
Because I wanted to emphasize the performance aspect, I didn’t make room for things he produced but that don’t feature him prominently (hence the omission, for example, of Toussaint-produced-and-penned tracks by Lee Dorsey, some of my favorite music ever recorded). Likewise, I omitted songs both by New Orleans artists like Irma Thomas and the Wild Tchoupitoulas and non-Louisiana artists like Paul McCartney (with Wings), Robert Palmer, Solomon Burke and LaBelle. RIP, Tousan, and thank you.
1 ) “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from Louisiana Piano Rhythms compilation)
I first heard this compilation in the 1990s and honestly don’t know the recording date or other information. What I DO know is that this solo piano version (along with a version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) shows off his great stride piano skills and the amazing intersection of New Orleans piano and jazz chops (including some downright modern moments) that underpins his point of reference at the keys.
2 ) “Bright Mississippi” from Bright Mississippi
My LORD is this fonky. This 2008 session got some attention for the prominent young jazz musicians and the recordings of jazz jazz tunes both traditional and more modern. On this Thelonious Monk tune his rhythm section of Marc Ribot, David Piltch and Jay Bellerose lays it down with an infectious street beat and guests Nicholas Payton and Don Byron wail, but the centerpiece is the great piano work by the maestro himself.
3 ) “A Blue Mood” (single) by Al Tousan
“Al Tousan” is of course Mr. Toussaint’s early pseudonym. This instrumental single from the early 1960s is a slow, bluesy number revolving around his piano soloing, with a rich horn section providing some extra depth.
4 ) “Southern Nights” from Songbook
From his last album (a solo retrospective of some of his classic compositions) his one is fascinating, a 13-minute solo version of his tune from the mid-70s that would go on to be a #1 smash for Glen Campbell. The music is wonderful, but possibly even better is the lengthy segment of spoken reflections on his youth in New Orleans.
5 ) “Skydiving” from Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed by Conjure
This 1980s Kip Hanrahan production is an interesting mix of funky and modern with an eclectic band playing (and composing) music to the wonderful writings of Ishmael Reed. Toussaint’s piano is featured throughout, though this track is his sole compositional contribution, and it’s a doozy, with soulful vocals from Taj Mahal atop a rock solid foundation laid down by Billy Hart and Steve Swallow.
6 ) “Brickyard Blues” from Bluesiana Hot Sauce
The “Bluesiana Triangle” series began a few years before this 1993 session, with Art Blakey and David Fathead Newman teaming up with Dr. John. Fast forward a few years and we get to hear Toussaint singing and playing soulfully with a similarly eclectic group, on this track alongside bassist Eddie Gomez, drummer Will Calhoun and guitarist Phil Hamilton, whose funky licks are featured prominently.
7 ) “I Like It Like That” (single) by Chris Kenner
This massive hit song from 1961 (#2 on the pop charts) was co-written by Toussaint. It is a classic of New Orleans R&B and the fun vocals by Kenner could almost make you miss the Fess-evoking piano that rollicks throughout. Unless, like me, you live for that stuff.
8 ) “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” from The River In Reverse by Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint
This Toussaint tune is the one lead vocal feature from his emotionally affecting post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello. Extra props for New Orleans stalwart Big Sam who kills it on trombone on this track.
9 ) “A Certain Girl” (single) by Ernie K-Doe
I first heard this super-catchy tune in the early 1980s in a live version by Warren Zevon that was in rotation in the early days of MTV. I eventually traced it back to the Yardbirds’ version and THEN to the 1964 original, composed by Toussaint and featuring his infectious piano.
10 ) “Night People” (from Motion)
Maybe this sly funk tune from 1978 is too slick for some (Larry Carlton, Jeff Porcaro, Richard Tee sharing keyboard duties, etc.), but I grin every time I hear it.